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It’s Essential to Act on Climate Emergencies, But a Mistake for Biden to Declare One

The following is an excerpt from a Sustain What blog post

With pressure from the left building again on President Joe Biden to declare a national climate emergency, it’s time for a #Watchwords entry on this phrase, both on the wider use of “emergency” in climate context and in relation to what presidents and other leaders can or should do under laws like the 1976 U.S. National Emergencies Act.

words associated with climate change


I’m not against the phrase. It’s a great starting point for solution-focused discussion. What’s your definition? Who is facing the emergency? What forces, local and global, are driving it? What are the remedies?

I’m with the longtime climate campaigner Bill McKibben (his latest dispatch) and Princeton Class of ’22 grad Hannah Reynolds (in The Nation) on the deeply broken and dangerous state of humanity’s relationships with energy and climate.

Climate emergencies abound – most of them still the result of underlying vulnerability emergencies. And without greatly intensified action to slow warming by cutting and sopping up heat-trapping gases, most the result of the global fossil fuel binge, humans absolutely face what James Howard Kunstler back in 2005 described as a “Long Emergency” (which is why he’s joining my webcast today with the authors Erica Gies and Eric Sanderson).

But I disagree with McKibben, Reynolds and dozens more on the merits, political and practical, of Biden moving from his appropriate rhetoric now – saying we’re in an emergency and why – to the formal step.

My reasoning is both practical and political, drawing a lot on the deeply-researched argument of Elizabeth Goitein at the Brennan Center for Justice and that of Bonnie Kristian, both of whom have been warning about the potential for executive abuse of power and limits of the tool for years. See Kristian’s 2019 commentary “America’s abuse of national emergencies is the real national emergency.”

Read the in-depth report and other background produced by Goitein and others at the Brennan Center. I also appreciate this visual starting point from the Center:

So join me today at 1 p.m. You’ll meet the journalist Erica Gies, author of “Water Always Wins,” a global tour pointing out the existential threats that arise when people forget the reality in the title, but also paths to building a more respectful relationship with water, and Eric W. Sanderson, a senior ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society best known for his bestseller “Mannahatta.”

At 2 p.m., I’m thrilled to catch up with the grounded provocations of James Howard Kunstler, whose 2005 book “The Long Emergency – Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century,” has reemerged as an essential read for obvious reasons.

Read more of the discussion around declaring a climate emergency. 

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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Aryt Alasti
Aryt Alasti
1 year ago

Boo! Could not disagree more emphatically. There is no other crisis confronting humanity which is of the severity, irreversibility, and ubiquity inherent in the climate emergency. Tragically, the world’s citizenries will not come to comprehension of this until it is too late to prevent unprecedented catastrophe, and your blog is not making that inevitability any less likely.